Jun 23, 2009

Dan Schifrin: "The Lovely Bones"

Dan Schifrin: "The Lovely Bones"
The New York Jewish Week

The marrow of life: Jon Galinson, with his family, needs a stem cell transplant.
The marrow of life: Jon Galinson, with his family, needs a stem cell transplant.

by Daniel Schifrin
Special To The Jewish Week

"Transmissions flow from your heart to Mine, trading, twining my pain with yours. Am I not — you? Are you not — I?"
— Abraham Joshua Heschel, "I and you."

There are moments when the idea of Jews being "one" transcends the clich├ęs of both community and continuity.

When my friend Jon Galinson was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer, requiring a stem cell transplant, it was likely that his match would be another Jew of Ashkenazic descent. Our community in Northern Californi
a, where the Galinsons live, sprang into action.

At our synagogue, Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom, a drive to register 100 new donors for Be The Match, the national bone marrow registry, delivered almost three times that. And at the annual Israel in the Gardens festival, the community's largest public Jewish event, the booth set up by Jon's friends and family seemed to exert a gravitational pull on the proceedings, as people crowded around to learn more about Jon, as well as the medical procedure that could save his life.

Since I am incapable of entering into a communal experience without analyzing the language and narrative that underlie it, I started exploring the physical and spiritual symbolism of a donor offering a sample of his or her bone marrow to a stranger, and I was shocked to see how the spiritual, physiological, communal and literary converged.

Figurative language, as we often forget in our urban and technological world, usually reflects our primal experience in the natural world. We talk about feeling something "in our bones"; an interest in art, or in music, being "in our blood." 

The Bible is full of this. In the second story of the creation of Eve, Adam muses on her formation from his rib, describing her as being "Bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh." The liturgist Marcia Folk, in "The Book of Blessings," quotes Isaiah in a new Rosh Chodesh prayer over wine: "It shall come to be from one month to the next/that your hearts will rejoice/and your bones will flower like young grass."

Moses, before he can deliver the Israelites, must find the bones of Joseph to return to the Holy Land. In "The Jewish Book of Days," Jill Hammer offers this interpretation: "Throughout the 40 years of wandering, the bones whisper to the Israelites of their distant past and their still-unimagined future. Then the bones are planted in the land as if they were seeds, to bring new life to the people as they build anew home."

Then, of course, there is the prophesy of Ezekiel, whose vision of communal revival in the valley of dry bones is among the most moving in our tradition.  
What is striking to me about this language is that bones evoke not skeletons, or our calcified remains after death, but the opposite — life, creativity, possibility. In a way this supports our medical knowledge about bone marrow, which, in the large bones of adults, produces new blood cells.

Not only that, but to echo the spiritual undertones in Heschel's poem above, the fact that one person's bones could give life to another is suggestive of the divine spirit that flows through all of us.

Finally — giving God the last word — Ezekiel is told that "these bones are the whole house of Israel." In my interpretation, this "house of Israel" is the community of people who are animated by the attempt to keep the divine spark alive, moving as one toward a higher purpose that occasional comes into sharp relief. 

All this comes full circle, not just to Jon Galinson but also to today's House of Israel. For the life that might be saved by a donor match is not just Jon's, but the community's as a whole. Ezekiel's vision of a "lifeless" community, for a contemporary audience, might translate into a Judaism that is inert, passive and without agency. By engaging in a mitzvah like registering to possibly save a life, a community finds itself — as the dry bones did — back on its feet: "I will put My breath into you, and you shall live again." 

Note: To register as a (potential) donor, one must be between 18 and 60, and in good health. The process requires a simple cheek swab. Promo code JonGalinson reduces the cost of online registration at www.BeTheMatch.com to $25. 

Daniel Schifrin is writer in residence and director of public programs at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.